The fight between branches of government continues over evidence on whether early Trump administration appointees at the State Department retaliated against career employees with whom they had political differences.
On March 15, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., joined with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denouncing “efforts to obstruct investigations” going back well into 2018. They demanded an array of documents.
The controversy stems from media reports beginning in June 2018 that, as the letter said, a political appointee had been “vetting career diplomats and American employees of international institutions to determine whether they are loyal to President Donald Trump and his political agenda.” A Politico story quoted emails from conservative activists seeking action against a 10-year-plus employee they derided as “an Obama cheerleader.”
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Last month, the controversy drew in inspectors general for the State and Homeland Security departments, who had complained to Congress about being stiffed in interview requests while probing the allegations.
In the recent letter, the Democrats told Pompeo that: “To date, despite three specific requests and multiple follow-up efforts by our offices, the department has failed to respond to our requests for interviews or provide any responsive records. After nearly a year, it suggests the State Department is stonewalling a legitimate congressional request for information on matters that are squarely within our committees’ oversight jurisdiction.”
They quoted Pompeo’s own words from back when he was a House member, saying, “it is unacceptable for Congress to take a back seat to [Freedom of Information Act] requesters when it comes to the crucial work of overseeing our national security apparatus.”
In restating their document requests originally made under the previous Congress, the two threatened to “use appropriate tools at our disposal to prompt a substantive response.”
Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson confirmed receipt of the letter and said the department plans to “respond accordingly.” The matter, said the emailed statement to Government Executive, “has been referred to two independent entities for review,” namely State’s IG and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
“The State Department takes these allegations as well as requests by members of Congress seriously,” the spokesperson said. “Secretary Pompeo has shown his full support for career staff at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Political retribution will not be tolerated. We always work closely and cooperatively with Congress and seek to be as timely and responsive as possible to their requests for information.” No further comment can be provided, the statement added.
The lawmakers are seeking documents, by March 21, relating to “any proposed or actual reassignment or removal of career or civil service employees at the department since January 20, 2017, based on alleged personal political beliefs, prior service with previous administrations, or work on prior administrations’ foreign policy priorities.”
The letter linked the requests to a list of Trump appointees, among them State Department Senior Adviser Mari Stull, Christine Ciccone, Makan Delrahim, Sean Doocey, Julia Haller, Brian Hook, Edward Lacey, Matthew Mowers, Margaret Peterlin, Andrew Veprek, John Zadrozny and Kevin Moley.
They also sought documents addressing proposed or actual personnel actions taken during the Trump administration against policy planning staff member Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, the subject of the Politico article.
Ciccone, who has moved to a position at Homeland Security, became the subject of IG complaints last month accusing her of rejecting their requests for interviews.
She told Government Executive on Wednesday that she has since done the requested interview, having delayed it, she said last month, until she could review materials from her tenure at State.